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Women in the Senedd: A Winning Chance?

Lara Stace
Lara Stace

The Senedd has a better history than most parliaments on women’s representation in elected politics, and in the UK it compares favourably to the other nations: 48% female members in the Senedd, compared to 34% in Westminster and 36% in both the Scottish Parliament and Stormont. But its performance is not the result of happenstance – positive action, in various forms, has ensured women take a seat at the table. And although positive action has brought welcome representation in some parts of the Siambr, commitment to change has not been uniform.

Before the Senedd dissolved in preparation for the election on 6 May, there were 29 women and 31 men in the Chamber. It’s a pretty even divide, although 25 women were elected in 2016 – following the deaths of Steffan Lewis and Mohammad Asghar, and the resignations of Nathan Gill and Simon Thomas, female candidates returned the seats. When the first elections to the then National Assembly were held, just 24 women were elected, but it reached the perfect 50/50 split in 2003.

Individual parties are responsible for driving progress and equality in selection and varying degrees of commitment between parties and over time has meant sustaining a representative parliament cannot be taken for granted.

There are a few ways a political party can increase the number of women candidates. One of the most transformative was the decision by Welsh Labour to use ‘twinning’ to select their slate of candidates at the first election in 1999. Neighbouring constituencies were ‘twinned’ and one man and one women are chosen to guarantee equal representation between them. It helped ensure that the first Assembly included 24 women out of 60 members, with 16 Labour, 6 Plaid Cymru and 3 Liberal Democrat women joining them.

In following years, it was clear that Welsh Labour would need to take further measures in order to continue to return a good proportion of women, and at recent elections has used all-women shortlists (AWS), where only women are shortlisted for certain seats..

Another option is ‘zipping’, in which parties alternate between men and women on lists, ensuring that a woman tops the regional list. Plaid Cymru has used this in the past though for some reason the party appears to have dropped this practice for 2021 and men lead three out of its five regional lists this year.

Looking ahead to the 2021 Senedd, there are some positive stories – but plenty to be concerned about. Labour has 50% female candidates, and around half of those candidates are in potentially winning seats. Women represent just over 36% of Plaid Cymru’s candidates, and there is a generally equal split between women and men for seats the party is predicted to win.

The Welsh Conservatives have a poor record of female representation in the Senedd and have seemingly failed to take any practical steps to change that. Whilst 27% of the party’s candidates are women, most are in unwinnable seats. Former group leader Paul Davies pledged to deliver a “genuinely diverse slate” of candidates at the 2021 Senedd elections, when he became leader in 2018, but he – and Andrew RT Davies, who took over leadership in January this year – have failed to offer anything more than the usual at this year’s election.

Longstanding MS Suzy Davies lost out on selection to the list, and only one region has a woman at the top of the list. It might be that whilst the party returns the highest number of seats yet at a Senedd Election, only two or three will be women.

The Welsh Conservatives have not adopted any proactive means of selecting female candidates, and the party’s failure to do so highlights why positive action is necessary – without such action, local party groups fall into the same old routine.

The new parties on the block, selling themselves as a break from the mainstream, have an embarrassing lack of women on their lists – just 14% for Abolish, 20% within Reform, and nearly 22% in Propel.

Writing for WalesOnline, Chisomo Phiri highlighted that a woman from a black, Asian or ethnic minority background has never been elected to the Senedd, and a small number of candidates from a BAME background makes it very unlikely that the Chamber will gain any additional members. Whilst Labour have seleced a number of BAME candidates, none are in winnable seats based on recent polling. If the Conservatives are lucky, they may return the first female BAME Senedd Member in Natasha Asghar, who is second on the list in South Wales East.

Whilst there has been positive action on women, there has not been any such action on race and ethnicity. Although there has been some progress on mentoring to develop a network of prospective candidates, Phiri stressed that commitment by political parties to recruit more diverse candidates.

Developing a pipeline of candidates, through mentoring for example, is important to deliver a more diverse Senedd, but the method of selecting candidates cannot be left to run its ‘natural’ course. The Welsh Conservatives need to bite the bullet and commit to action, or they will continue to dawdle at the back of the pack and fail to offer voters a representative voice. The main political parties need to take the lead, and although Plaid Cymru and Welsh Labour have taken specific actions to improve the gender balance on their cards, this needs to stretch to other under-represented groups in order to deliver a diverse Senedd.

Take a look at how gender representation in the Senedd has changed over time on Deryn's dashboard.

For a bird's eye view.
Am olwg oddi uchod.

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